Dance diary. February 2014

  • Michelle Ryan

In February I had the pleasure and privilege of recording an oral history interview with Michelle Ryan for the National Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. Ryan is currently artistic director of the Adelaide-based Restless Dance Theatre.

Canberra audiences may remember Ryan as a member of the Meryl Tankard Company. She joined in 1992 so was only seen during the last year of the company’s four year stint in Canberra. When the company moved to Adelaide in 1993, becoming Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Ryan went with them. She danced in all the works Tankard staged in Adelaide and was an especially wonderful tap-dancing fairy in Aurora. In the interview she explains that tap had been one of her childhood specialties when she was learning to dance at the Croft Gilchrist School of Dancing in her home town of Townsville.

Michelle Ryan. Photo Ashley Roach

Michelle Ryan, artistic director, Restless Dance Theatre. Photo Ashley Roach

Ryan’s story, including her struggle with the ravages of multiple sclerosis, is an amazingly courageous one and is told with honesty and integrity. She has not placed restrictions on the interview and it will be available as online audio over the National Library’s website in due course.

  • Stella Motion Pictures

In February I also caught up with Melbourne-based film maker Philippe Charluet who has been in Canberra working on a project called The Heritage Collection. Charluet filmed most of Graeme Murphy’s productions during Murphy’s artistic directorship of Sydney Dance Company and The Heritage Collection will showcase excerpts from many of those shows. It is still in its early stages but what a nostalgic look back it gives already. And oh the beautiful Katie Ripley in the Grand promo (to choose just one artist).

  • Press for February

‘Staging unique challenge’. Review of A Tale of Two Cities, The Canberra Times, 7 February 2014, p. Arts 6.  Online.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2014

Dance diary. November 2013

  • Alexei Ratmansky

With Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella now playing a Sydney season with the Australian Ballet, it was a delight to hear that in 2014 Sharmill Films will be screening Ratmansky’s Lost Illusions, a work based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac and made in 2011 for the Bolshoi Ballet. It opens at cinemas around the country on 29 March 2014. Follow this link for the full Sharmill program of ballet screenings.

I am, however, also looking forward to the visit to Australia (Brisbane only) in 2014 by American Ballet Theatre when Ratmansky’s gorgeous work, Seven Sonatas, will be part of the company’s mixed bill  program. I wrote about this work in an earlier post. It is truly a work worth seeing.

Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in ‘Seven sonatas’, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: © Rosalie O’Connor

Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo in Seven Sonatas, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: © Rosalie O’Connor

In the meantime I am looking forward to further viewings of Cinderella very soon. More later.

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2013

The dance awards in the annual Canberra Critics’ Awards this year went to Liz Lea and Elizabeth Dalman. Lea was honoured for the diversity of her contributions to the Canberra dance scene, in particular for her input into the dance and science festival she curated in collaboration with Cris Kennedy of CSIRO Discovery, and for her initiatives in establishing her mature age group of dancers, the GOLD group.

Dalman received an award for Morning Star, which she  created on her Mirramu Dance Company earlier in 2013. Morning Star was based on extensive research in and travel to indigenous communities and the final product used an outstanding line-up of performers from indigenous and non-indigenous communities and mixed indigenous and Western dance in insightful ways.

  •  Movers and Shakers

Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery was recently the venue for a short program of dance presented by two Sydney-based independent artists, Julia Cotton and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Called Movers and Shakers and held on the last weekend of the Gallery’s exhibition of photographs by Richard Avendon, the short, 30 minute program was largely a celebration of dancers Avendon had photographed over the course of his career, including Merce Cunningham and Rudolph Nureyev. Cotton and Frankenhaeuser are mature age performers and it was a joy to see that, as such, they had taken their work to a different plane in terms of technique but had lost none of the expressive power that has always been at the heart of their dancing.

Anca and Julia 6
Julia Cotton (left) and Anca Frankenhaueser in Movers and Shakers, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, November 2013. Photo: Michelle Potter

The tiny objects you see on the white pillar on the left of the image above are little decorative items representing bees, which Frankenhaeuser initially wore on her face and which she removed and stuck on the pillar at one stage in one of her solos. This part of the program referred not to a dance portrait but to Avendon’s well known shot of a beekeeper. It was a particularly strong and confronting solo by Frankenhaeuser who danced around the pillar—and was sometimes almost completely hidden by it—using little more that fluttering hands to convey her story.

  • Hot to Trot: Quantum Leap

Hot to Trot, a program for young, Canberra-based choreographers has been around for fifteen years, although the recent 2013 program is the first one I have managed to see. As might be expected the short pieces, which included a few short dance films, were of a mixed standard. One stood out, however, and deserves a mention—Hear no evil, speak no evil. It was jointly choreographed by Kyra-Lee Hansen and Jack Riley who were also the performers. The dance vocabulary they created was adventurous and compelling and the work itself was clearly and strongly focused and well structured.

Kyra-Lee Hansen and Jack Riley in 'Hear no evil, speak no evil', Hot to trot 2013 season. Photo: Lorn Sim

Kyra-Lee Hansen and Jack Riley in ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil’, Hot to Trot, 2013 season. Photo: © Lorn Sim

Jack Riley will join the WAAPA dance course in 2014.

  • Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac

News came in November from Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac. Tankard’s acclaimed work The Oracle was performed in mid-November in Düsseldorf, Germany, by Paul White, now a member of Tanztheater Wuppertal, as part of a celebration of the legacy of Pina Bausch.

Flyer for 'The oracle'

At the same time, the gallery of Mac Studios in Düsseldorf held an exhibition of more than twenty large-format portraits of Tankard by Lansac. All were produced in the summer of 1984 in the Wuppertal apartment of the American art critic David Galloway. One of Lansac’s most striking images held in Australian public collections also comes, I believe, from the shoot Lansac undertook in this apartment. Follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2013

Dance diary. June 2013

  • Meryl Tankard

Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pictures has kindly given me permission to use clips from some of the work he has done with Meryl Tankard. They include excerpts from a short documentary, Meryl Tankard: a unique choreographic voice, made for Spring Dance in Sydney in 2011, and some excerpts from Tankard’s work Possessed, made for the Barossa Arts Festival in 1995 in conjunction with the Balanescu Quartet. The clips give a glimpse of Tankard’s extraordinarily diverse output (apart from being so beautifully filmed and edited) and make me wonder why works like Two Feet, Nuti and so many others have never been made available commercially.

Here are Charluet’s clips:
A unique choreographic voice;  Possessed.

I still have a few copies of my unauthorised biography, Meryl Tankard: an original voice, available for sale. Ordering details are at the end of this post.
Cover design 'Meryl Tankard: an original voice'The book outlines the story behind Tankard’s magical works. Here are the last couple of paragraphs to my story:

Many people have shared her journeys—her family and friends, her partner in life and art, her audiences, her dancers, and those creative artists she especially admires and who admire her. But there are perhaps two ‘last words’ to this story. One belongs to Meryl Tankard herself: ‘I don’t want to go into a battlefield’, she is reported to have said as she prepared to leave Canberra for Adelaide in 1992. ‘I just want to work’. The second comes from Jim Sharman who recalls seeing Tankard performing for the first time in Wuppertal in 1980: a piece by Pina Bausch, Bausch’s eulogy, or ‘memento mori’ as Sharman puts it, for her recently deceased partner and designer for Tanztheater Wuppertal, Rolf Borzik. Sharman writes:

At one point, a very familiar accent cut the air. Australian dancer Meryl Tankard entered to reminisce about having lost her sunglasses in Venice. It was my first thrilling glimpse of this great artist and future choreographer.

These two comments encapsulate two features of Tankard’s life and work in art. Firstly, her comment about just wanting simply to work highlights her commitment to, and pursuit of excellence no matter what obstacles might be placed in her way or whom she might cross in making her work. Secondly, Sharman’s remark encapsulates Tankard’s ability to couch the serious—in this case loss—behind humour and zaniness. Tankard is perhaps Australia’s one truly original dance voice.

(The ‘battlefield quote’ is from an article by Tracey Aubin in The Bulletin in 1992; the quote by Jim Sharman is from his 2008 autobiography Blood and Tinsel: a memoir).

  • The GOLDS

Canberra is in the somewhat odd position of having no professional dance company but of having a strong youth company in QL2 and a group called the GOLDS that consists of older performers (over 55) most of whom have never been professional dancers. The GOLDS, which is directed by the irrepressible Liz Lea, recently gave four sold-out performance at the National Gallery of Australia as part of Canberra’s centenary celebrations. Called ‘Life is a work of art’, the event took place in front of various works of art and I hope to report a little more fully a little later when I have a little more information—I was at the dress rehearsal and no program notes were available. Suffice it to say for the moment that some pieces worked better than others but that as a whole this was a more than interesting event.

  • Press for June

Big, bravura dancing program article for the Bolshoi Ballet’s Australian season;

‘Happy in San Francisco’, profile of Luke Ingham in Dance Australia , June/July 2013 with an online teaser;

Background story on Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal and her latest work, Opal Vapour, published in The Canberra Times on 1 June;

Review of Garry Stewart’s G published in The Canberra Times on 15 June;

Review of Opal Vapour  published in The Canberra Times on 18 June.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2013

Meryl Tankard: an original voice FURTHER DETAILS & HOW TO ORDER
‘It brought back so many memories’— Jill Sykes

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Dance diary. February 2013

  • Hannah O’Neill

Admirers of Hannah O’Neill, and there are many if my web statistics are anything to go by, may be interested to read the following post on Laura Capelle’s website Bella Figura. In addition to what is written on the site, there is a link to an article written by Capelle for the American dance magazine Pointe. The article was published in the February/March issue of Pointe and Capelle has done a great job in getting O’Neill to open up about her experiences, including some of the difficulties she has faced in Paris.

  • Bodenwieser update

A news story on the Bodenwieser project being led by Jochen Roller, which I mentioned in last month’s dance diary, was screened on SBS TV a few days ago. The SBS story is available via this YouTube link.

Below I have reproduced a photo of Marie Cuckson, who with Emmy Taussig assembled the Bodenwieser archival material and kept it in good order until she donated it to the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive in 1998. The acquisition was part of the Keep Dancing! project, which was the forerunner to Australia Dancing. Marie Cuckson is seen in her home in Sydney in August 1998 with the material packaged and ready to be transported to Canberra.

Marie Cuckson, 1998Marie Cuckson with the Bodenwieser Archives, 1998

  • Oral history collections

As a result of the Athol Willoughby interview conducted recently I retrieved the listing of dance-related oral histories in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive that used to be part of Australia Dancing. I have updated that list (an old version is on the PANDORA Archive). Here is the link to the updated version. It is a remarkable list of resources going back to the 1960s with early recordings by pioneer oral historian Hazel de Berg and, in the case of the NFSA, to the 1950s with some radio interviews from that period. It includes, for example, interviews with every artistic director of the Australian Ballet—Peggy van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones, Maina Gielgud, Ross Stretton and David McAllister—and with three of the company’s administrators/general managers—Geoffrey Ingram, Noël Pelly and Ian McRae. But it is not limited by any means to ballet and in fact covers most genres of dance and the ancillary arts as well.

That material held by the National Film and Sound Archive is included reflects the origins of the list, which was begun in the early days of the Australia Dancing project when the NFSA was a partner in the project (and in fact the major collecting partner in its initial stages). I have also posted the list on the Resources page of this website and will update it periodically as information about new interviews comes to light. It deserves to be more obvious than it is now—that is hidden in PANDORA in an outdated version—especially as it is not a static resource.

  • Site news

February saw a huge jump in visits from France due largely to the post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle, which was the most accessed post during February by a runaway margin. Critics in France were curious about the reaction of Australian audiences and critics. As a result I have added ‘Danses avec la plume’ (the title refers a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche) from journalist Amélie Bertrand to my list of Resources under ‘Other sites’.

Coming in at fourth spot was a much older post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime, which was having a return season in Paris in February. Interest in these two posts saw Paris become the fourth most active city after Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The second most accessed post in February was an even older one, my review of Meryl Tankard’s Oracle, originally posted in 2009. Tankard is currently touring this work in the United States. At third spot was a post on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring perhaps reflecting the wide interest in 2013 in the many dance activities associated with the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky Rite of Spring, of which the Tankard tour is one.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2013

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Dance diary. December 2012

  • Hannah O’Neill: news from Paris

Hannah O’Neill is now half way through her second year with the Paris Opera Ballet, having successfully negotiated another temporary contract at the annual examinations the company conducts each year.

In her second year with the company O’Neill has taken particular delight in performing in George Balanchine’s Serenade, part of a program of three Balanchine ballets that began the 2012‒2013 season. Sadly for her Australian admirers however, she is not coming to Sydney for the Paris Opera Ballet’s season of Giselle to be staged in January‒February. She says that, as she is still on a temporary contract, she wasn’t expecting to tour but that the bonus is that she will be performing in Paris in February in Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime. With a company of over 150 dancers, the Paris Opera Ballet has the luxury of being able to tour while maintaining a regular program in Paris at the same time. Kaguyahime, a spectacular piece of theatre, will be O’Neill’s first experience dancing a contemporary work since she has been in Paris.

  • Michelle Ryan: new artistic director at Restless Dance Theatre

Early in December Michelle Ryan was appointed artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Many will remember Ryan I am sure from her performance days with Meryl Tankard. She joined the Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra in 1992 and then moved to Adelaide in 1993 remaining with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre until it disbanded. More recently Ryan has been working as rehearsal director with Dance North.

For more about the history of Restless Dance, a contemporary company working with people with and without a disability, the National Library holds an extensive interview with Kat Worth, artistic director of Restless Dance 2001–2006.

  • Meryl Tankard: an original voice

Here are some shout-lines from some who have read Meryl Tankard: an original voice: ‘It has a sense of drama but also balance, and it brings Meryl and her work to life’; and ‘The best and most comprehensive study of Tankard I have read’. Order a copy and see for yourself.

  • Site news

I am always interested to see which tags are being accessed most frequently by visitors to this site. It usually changes slightly from month to month depending on what has been posted in any particular month. But it is perhaps more telling to look at which tags have been accessed over a full year. In 2012 the Australian Ballet topped the list. Here are the top ten:

  • The Australian Ballet
  • Hannah O’Neill
  • Ty King-Wall
  • Ballets Russes
  • Graeme Murphy
  • Meryl Tankard
  • Madeleine Eastoe
  • Olga Spessivtseva
  • Juliet Burnett
  • Lana Jones

Michelle Potter, 28 December 2012

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Dance diary. November 2012

  • Meryl Tankard: an original voice

Following requests from a number of readers for a copy of Meryl Tankard: an original voice, which appeared in eight parts on this website between July and September, the book is now available in print form.

Ordering details are at this link.

Please note that this is a self-published initiative and has not had the benefit of professional design; nor does it include any illustrations. Both were beyond the scope of this venture. It does however include material not published online including a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and the full list of choreographic works, updated with the addition of Cinderella (2011) for Leipzig Ballet, which will be restaged early in 2013 in Leipzig, and The Book of Revelation, the film directed by Ana Kokkinos that Tankard choreographed in 2006.

  • Canberra news

The Canberra Critics’ Circle announced its annual awards during November. The dance panel gave two awards this year. One went to Adelina Larsson ‘for her initiative in facilitating the development and performance of contemporary dance in Canberra, in particular for her work as director of  short + sweet dance, and for her collaborations with independent artists from across Australia to bring a broad spectrum of contemporary dance to Canberra’. Another went to Jordan Kelly local dancer and choreographer in musical theatre ‘for his body of work as an outstanding dancer, and consistent achievements as a talented choreographer, as evidenced in a number of musicals throughout 2012’.

In November, the ACT Government also announced its nominations for the Australian of the Year awards. At this ceremony the ACT Local Hero Award was presented to dancer and mentor, Francis Owusu. There is an enormous amount of community dance currently being practised in the ACT and Francis Owusu founded Kulture Break, a not-for-profit charitable creative arts organisation with a community focus. It acts as an outlet for young people to build self-confidence through dance.

  • Reviews: The Canberra Times

Here are links to my reviews published during November by The Canberra Times—performances by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and short + sweet dance.

  • On this site

The five most visited posts in November were: Thoughts in Pina Bausch’s ‘Rite of Spring’; ‘Icons’: the Australian Ballet; Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson dance Balanchine; ‘Concord’: the Australian Ballet; and ‘Swan Lake’: the Australian Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

‘Meryl Tankard: an original voice’. Part eight—The voice

On 30 November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

Following requests from a number of readers for a copy of Meryl Tankard: an original voice, the book is now available in print form. The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

Dance diary. July 2012

  • Moya Beaver (1918‒2012)

I was saddened to learn that Moya Beaver, whose dance links go back to Louise Lightfoot and Mischa Burlakov and the First Australian Ballet in the 1930s, had died on 13 June 2012. Beaver performed in many of the Lightfoot/Burlakov productions and was partnered often by Gordon Hamilton. She later travelled to Europe where she studied in Paris with Lubov Egorova. Beaver then performed with Egorova’s Les Ballets de la jeunesse, touring with them to Denmark. On her return to Australia she danced in the J. C. Williamson musical Funny side up before settling into family life and a long career as a teacher in Sydney.

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in 'Le Carnaval'. Photo Nikolai Ross, 1937

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in Le Carnaval, First Australian Ballet 1937. Photo Nikolai Ross. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Listen to Moya Beaver’s oral history interview, recorded for the National Library in 1994.

  • International Auto/Biography Association (IABA)

In July I presented a paper, ‘The desire to conceal: two case studies’, at the 2012 IABA conference, Framing Lives.  In this paper I looked at the problems encountered in writing a biography when a subject expresses, either directly or indirectly, a desire to conceal certain aspects of his/her life and career.

  • Kathryn Bennetts

I also had the great pleasure in July of recording an oral history interview with Australian expatriate Kathryn Bennetts who recently resigned from a seven year term as artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Bennetts was in Sydney briefly before returning to Europe to continue work as a much sought after teacher and as a stager of ballets, especially those of William Forsythe, for companies across the world.

  • The Oracle and Meryl Tankard

Also during July The Canberra Times published my article on Meryl Tankard’s 2009 work The Oracle, which I was inspired to write after hearing that negotiations were underway for The Oracle to tour in the United States

  • Ethan Stiefel

News came through this month too of Ethan Stiefel’s final performance on 7 July as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Here is a selection of online news:

Interview in TimeOut about his retirement

Article in The New York Times about his retirement

The New York Times review of the final show

I loved Roslyn Sulcas’ comments in the review: ‘His performance was daring, explosive. Pirouettes, jumps and whole phrases started at what seemed to be full power and then amazingly turned up a notch. Risk was palpable, and yet classical form was never distorted’.

After reading the reports I looked back to a letter I had written to a friend following Stiefel’s performance as Solor in La Bayadère with ABT in 2007 (with Diana Vishneva as Nikiya). I wrote: ‘Those double cabrioles in his Act I solo! So exciting to see, partly of course because he has such amazing legs in terms of strength and in terms of the long lean look they have. Then I was watching his manège of grands jetés in the same solo and was absolutely taken by the way he stretched out the front leg. You could see its trajectory carving or pushing a line in the space ahead of him.’

What a performance that was and, to my absolute surprise as I am not normally a fan of La Bayadère, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire performance.

Steifel and his partner Gillian Murphy are now back in Wellington with the Royal New Zealand Ballet where a new production of Giselle by Stiefel, in collaboration with Johan Kobborg, is something to anticipate later this year.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2012

‘Meryl Tankard: an original voice’. Part one—Early journeys

On 30 November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

Following requests from a number of readers for a copy of Meryl Tankard: an original voice, the book is now available in print form. The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

A Bauschian experience in Berlin

Recently Roslyn Sulcas had a feature in The New York Times about the works of Pina Bausch that are being brought to London to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games. The London program, called World Cities 2012—it opened on 6 June, celebrates the residencies Bausch and her company undertook in the last several years of Bausch’s life. The full program will show ten of the works Bausch made as a result of those residencies.

Sulcas interviewed a number of people for her feature, including the theatre director Peter Sellars. Sellars noted the following characteristic of Bausch’s choreographic process:

What is so extraordinary about Pina’s work is that she doesn’t start from the architectonics of movement; it starts from the autobiography of the dancers.  

The statement immediately reminded me of the Australian video documentary The Black Swan directed by Michelle Mahrer in 1995 about Meryl Tankard’s career, including her career as a dancer with Pina Bausch. The video contains archival footage from Walzer (1982) and shows a scene in which Tankard’s character outlines for the benefit of the audience various survival methods that might be pursued should one find oneself alone in the desert. Tankard’s movements are dynamic and her voice animated. She wears an alluring yellow and black striped dress in keeping with the elegance of the other dancers who, oblivious to Tankard, mingle with each other and eat supper from a long table. The scene has the glamour of a society party, which makes Tankard’s discussion of desert survival appear startlingly out of context.

When Tankard gives her explanation of how to get by in the desert she is drawing on her recollections of early trips she and her family made between Darwin, where she was born, and Melbourne, where the family would later settle for several years. She explains to the audience how the wearing of underpants on the head is a great way to keep flies at bay. On the spot she removes her own underpants and demonstrates how to wear this item of apparel on the head in the most effective manner, all the while maintaining her enthusiastic telling of the story and her exhortations and advice to the audience.

Tankard’s mother, when questioned later by Tankard, explained the rationale behind this action of wearing underpants on the head. She recalled that on one of the trips back to Darwin—and the family made the long trip between Darwin and Melbourne and back several times while living in Darwin—the flies had been so bad at one breakfast stop that she had had the idea of covering the children’s faces with underpants, newly-bought in Melbourne and made from fabric that ‘breathed’ as a result of the tiny holes that were part of the composition of the fabric.

Sellars’ remark clearly fits well in the case of Tankard and Walzer. And Tankard of course would go onto use a similar technique and draw on many memories from her childhood and young adulthood when making her own works in Australia.

But a recent experience suggested to me that there is another powerful element in Bausch’s work that is perhaps stronger than those autobiographical elements, as important as they are. I was standing on a busy street corner near Eberswalder Strasse station in East Berlin. It’s a vibrant area in the city—full of students and other, colourful characters. A woman was crossing towards my corner on the green light and as she approached the kerb it was apparent that she was shouting something. In between exhortations she was taking bites from a huge, round, flat loaf of bread—and I mean huge. It was larger than a standard-sized pizza base and thicker. She wore track pants and a parka and a woollen cap. A line of cyclists in a bike lane, who were stationary waiting for a green light to move forward, studiously avoided taking any notice of the woman, although she was clearly an eccentric character in a regular, busy street scene and was passing right in front of them. They were dressed for bike riding so were not all that dissimilar in dress from the woman who was the central attraction.

The scene could have come straight out of a Bausch work. The woman was as vibrant in her exhortations as any of the best of Bausch’s dancers. The incongruity of her activity involving the bread recalled the apparent non-sequiturs that often feature in a Bausch work and reminded me of, say, the scene in Palermo, Palermo where one of the dancers cooks slices of some kind of sausage on the hot-plate of an iron. The bike riders got on with their business just as those dancers in Walzer did, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in front of them. 

I began to think about how the major feature of Bausch’s works is not so much that she drew on the autobiographical stories of her dancers, but that she manipulated those stories and set them into a context. She was able to seduce the audience not because the stories were autobiographical but because through them she allowed art to imitate life.

© Michelle Potter, 9 June 2012

Postscript, 1 July 2012: Here is a link to a podcast made by The Financial Times in relation to the World Cities 2012 program. It features dance critic Clement Crisp and Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells.